The new Elite League season is almost upon us and expectations are as high as ever for the Belfast Giants.
The Giants missed the playoff weekend last season but brought silverware home for the first time in four years with a smashing win over league champions Cardiff in the Challenge Cup final.
In terms of personnel, head coach Adam Keefe would have been disappointed to lose goaltender Jackson Whistle and last season’s player of the year Ryan Martinelli to the Sheffield Steelers, arguably the Belfast Giants’ biggest rivals. Star man Sebastien Sylvestre also moved on to Medvescak Zagreb of Croatia. The Montreal native scored 39 goals and added 52 assists for 91 points in 66 games and replacing that output could prove difficult for this season’s forwards.
The Giants retained D-men Jim Vandermeer and Mark Garside, as well as all-time top goalscorer Colin Shields, fan favourite Darcy Murphy, skipper Blair Riley and Canadian duo Dustin Johner and David Rutherford. Long-serving goaltender Stephen Murphy is also back for his 10th season in Belfast.
Former NHL man Patrick Dwyer looks to be the most exciting new arrival.
Former NHL man Patrick Dwyer looks to be the most exciting new arrival. The 35-year-old right wing dressed in over 400 games for the Carolina Hurricanes and joins after a season in Denmark with SønderjyskE.
Highly rated left wing Lewis Hook notched 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points in an impressive debut season for MK Lightning last year. The 21-year-old will help to fill the void left by Sylvestre and Brendan Connolly, who swapped Belfast for Glasgow this summer. Goaltender Tyler Bestorowany arrived from Edinburgh to replace Whistle and made an immediate impression on captain Riley:
*Training Camp Update Day 1
Beskorowany is no fun to shoot on
The D-core is massive
Boxill’s hair is still very red
— Blair Riley (@Briles25) August 13, 2018
Elsewhere, 6’4’’ defenceman Paul Swindlehurst arrived from Elite League rivals Manchester Storm. He was joined by Canadian trio Curtis Leonard, Kendall McFaull and Guillaume Gélinas to fill out the D-corps. New forwards Kyle Baun, Francis Beauvillier, Josh Roach and Jonathan Boxill – back for a 2nd spell in Belfast – complete the line-up.
In terms of the new season, the main challenge again is going to be coping with a lopsided schedule. Other events taking place at the SSE Arena provide the Giants with a problem not faced by most of their Elite League rivals.
Last season, from the end of September until the start of November they played 12 matches out of 13 away from home. From the end of November until Boxing Day they had nine road games in a row. The team dealt with this well at the time but later in the season fatigue kicked in and they fell away in the title race and failed to make the Playoff Weekend.
This year the Giants are scheduled to play 16 domestic matches in a row away from home between October 19th and December 8th. This is far from ideal and it’ll be interesting to see how the players cope come the business end of the season.
Cardiff will once again be favourites to win the title. Since Giants legend Todd Kelman swapped Belfast for the Welsh capital the Devils have become the bona fide team to beat. They’ve won six of the last eight trophies available, and were runners-up for the other two. If Todd gets his recruitment right this summer – and history suggests he will – it’ll take a mighty effort to dethrone his team.
Traditionally Sheffield and Nottingham are the Belfast Giants’ other big rivals and will expect to challenge. It would be foolish to discount Manchester after their surprisingly impressive 2nd place finish last season.
There’s also the small matter of defending their Challenge Cup for the Giants, as well as some European action to look forward to.
It’s shaping up to be another competitive, hard fought campaign and optimism is high at the SSE. Steve Thornton and Adam Keefe have recruited well; Belfast Giants might not be everyone’s pick for the major honours when all is said and done, but this team is certainly capable of causing a surprise.